And finally that day arrives – the trip to South Africa and, in a certain sense, the point of no return to Antarctica.
Waking up, on an unusual sunny day in December, the first thing that crossed my mind was that these would be my last hours on the Northern hemisphere for more than a year. After a series of disgusting days in which the rain only stopped to give way to a cold wind that made me even more miserable, I suddenly am presented with a clear blue sky, zero wind and a “end of Spring” kinda sun.
As soon as I set foot on that plane, there was no turning back. I mean, technically I was able to do it but not without making me a logistical nightmare for BAS. Everything so far had gone peacefully, which was something that I wasn’t used to. My sixth sense for calamities was in full swing. It is normally in around this part that stupid mistakes happen, such as forgetting the passport on the nightstand or getting blocked on the security checkpoint because I forgot a pair toe-clippers in my shirt pocket.
Actually I was red flagged on the security scanner, but almost everyone from BAS that day was too. My backpack contained an unusual quantity of electronics, which triggered the scanning device. Two cameras, three hard drives, one laptop, one tablet, one bluetooth keyboard, four AC-USB chargers and enough cables to go for marlin fishing had made the scanner go crazy. Fortunately the security guard that frisked me was really nice and when I told her that I was going for more than a year to Antarctica, we end up chatting for a while. I guess my charm got me out of another cavity search…
My last weeks in Cambridge were a bit weird. For the past 3 months or so I’ve met a lot of people, some were work colleagues, others not so much. But as the austral Spring was coming to an end, folks were getting shipped to their Antarctic bases. By some reason I was put into the last group leaving from Cambridge that year. There were weeks where I had 2 or three “goodbye” parties for friends that were going to other bases. For someone that was going out for more than a full year, my goodbyes were all until 2017.
After two hours on an highway, we finally got to terminal 3 on Heathrow airport. Our flight was scheduled to 17h35 and we were still 3h ahead of it. This was probably one of my easiest embarkation processes that I had so far in an airport, even with that security hiccup. Our party got to the airport with plenty of time to spare. Most of it was spent on the airport waiting area, looking at the watch going at its business. Everyone was too nervous and/or excited to read or do anything else.
We boarded a British Airways Boeing 747, truly an hotel on wings, for the first class people that is. As for the rest of the scum, as ourselves unfortunately, the next 11 and half ours were pretty much like a ride on the back of a mexican bus. Almost half day confined to little over half a square meter. Oddly enough, it went by quickly.
The plane got off ground around 19h in a process strangely smooth, considering the size of the bathtub where we were in, and shortly after we got our dinner served. I was anticipating a long flight and a crowded cabin so I hadn’t slept that much yesterday on purpose I order to get myself KO from most of the trip. Truth enough, as soon as finish my meal, I started fighting with my eyelids almost instantly and 10 minutes later I was snoring and drooling all over the place. Yet, only two hours later I was woke up and widely. Even with just 5h of sleep in the last 48, I spend most of the flight wide awake. Whatever time frame we were in, it was the middle of the night and, as such, the cabin lights were almost all off. I ended up spending most of my night watching movies or solving silly puzzles in my tablet. On one end, I was lucky enough to get assigned to a window seat, which is the best position to sleep on a plane, unless you like dozing over your next seat mate, but now that I was truly awake, I was stuck in there because my other two seat buddies were sleeping like two babies on Sunday mass.
I got sleepy again around 5 AM but we were now two hours away from landing and the crew was serving breakfast in an hour. I was able to doze off for a minute or two but we were almost touching Africa and the captain was broadcasting messages almost every minute at that time. I got to watch the sun rise in the southern hemisphere, well, kind of. From where I was sitting the damn wing of the plane was right in front of the whole show and I spend most of the time moving my head around to catch a glimpse of the sun.
As soon as we landed it was possible to feel that you were on the other half of the planet. We were still inside the cabin but you could already sense the warmth of a late Spring morning. Outside, no clouds whatsoever. Hoodies and long pants were switched to t-shirts and shorts.
When we got through from all the immigration paperwork, the morning was already almost gone. We had to wait for another hour for transportation to the harbor where the Shackleton was already waiting for us.
Right after getting on aboard, we got our quarters assigned. Given all possibilities, I got a good deal. I was with just another friend on a 4 man cabin with a small bathroom just for the two of us. There was plenty of room for both.
The first day was spent getting around the ship and resting from a 11 and half hours trip, plus the 2 extra hours lost due to the time difference (Cape Town works on GMT +2). Since that Thursday was the only sure day that we knew that the ship would remained docked there, we made an extra effort and went for a town visit that afternoon, sort of a goodbye moment to all civilization. The departure for Halley was scheduled for anytime next Friday.
Next morning I hit another point of no return. Right after breakfast (which I missed because I forgot to adjust the clock to the new time frame.), we got into the same minivans that brought us there and went to the harbor’s immigration desk. Another 5 minutes on a line, photo check and another stamp on the passport. Everything was OK and, as far as the South African Immigration Service concern, I left the country on December 5th.
Actually we only set sail next morning since we had a delay with the last piece of Southbound cargo, but as soon as everything was OK, we left the South African harbor. There’s no turning back now…
As we were getting away from the continent, I was looking at my reception bars on my mobile phone. Each time I lost one, it was another step away from civilization. I wasn’t going to be unreachable for just a couple of hours or even weeks – a couple of minutes from that point and my mobile phone would be useless for more than 15 months. In minutes I would get reduced to a single point of contact with the rest of the world, the satellite link shared by the ships and bases, and nothing else. Nowadays we are so used to be able to get in touch with anyone everywhere that when we loose that, it feels kinda weird.
The last reception bar was gone and from this point on I’m officially unreachable, at least directly. In a sense, I feel like I’m back into the 90’s. From now on, if you what to speak to me, you have to call the base phone and, as in the old days, ask whoever answers it to track me down and pray that I’m not in the toilet again.
I’m on vacations from civilization and strangely enough, I feel relieved…